The Arc

February 24, 2019

Series: February 2019

Category: Faith

Speaker: Rob McClellan


 Psalm 37: 21-40

21 The wicked borrow, and do not pay back,

   but the righteous are generous and keep giving;

22 for those blessed by the Lord shall inherit the land,

   but those cursed by him shall be cut off.


23 Our steps are made firm by the Lord,

   when he delights in our way;

24 though we stumble, we shall not fall headlong,

   for the Lord holds us by the hand.


25 I have been young, and now am old,

   yet I have not seen the righteous forsaken

   or their children begging bread.

26 They are ever giving liberally and lending,

   and their children become a blessing.


27 Depart from evil, and do good;

   so you shall abide for ever.

28 For the Lord loves justice;

   The Lord will not forsake his faithful ones.


The righteous shall be kept safe for ever,

   but the children of the wicked shall be cut off.

29 The righteous shall inherit the land,

   and live in it for ever.


30 The mouths of the righteous utter wisdom,

   and their tongues speak justice.

31 The law of their God is in their hearts;

   their steps do not slip.


32 The wicked watch for the righteous,

   and seek to kill them.

33 The Lord will not abandon them to their power,

   or let them be condemned when they are brought to trial.


34 Wait for the Lord, and keep to her way,

   and she will exalt you to inherit the land;

   you will look on the destruction of the wicked.


35 I have seen the wicked oppressing,

   and towering like a cedar of Lebanon.

36 Again I passed by, and they were no more;

   though I sought them, they could not be found.


37 Mark the blameless, and behold the upright,

   for there is posterity for the peaceable.

38 But transgressors shall be altogether destroyed;

   the posterity of the wicked shall be cut off.


39 The salvation of the righteous is from the Lord;

   he is their refuge in the time of trouble.

40 The Lord helps them and rescues them;

   she rescues them from the wicked, and saves them,

   because they take refuge in her.


 The Arc

          The quote on the front of your bulletin reads:

“Look at the facts of the world. You see a continual and progressive triumph of the right. I do not pretend to understand the moral universe, the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but little ways. I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by the experience of sight; I can divine it by conscience. But from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice.”[1]

          It is perhaps a familiar quote to you, fitting for Black History Month.  It seems to be state the very theme of 37th Psalm, which you heard in its entirety this morning, namely that things work out for the good and thus there is great reason to be and do good.  Listen to a few select lines from the psalm with this in mind:

           Do not fret because of the wicked (v. 1)…Trust in the Lord, and do good (v.3)…and he will give you the desires of your heart…trust in the Lord, and the Lord will act (v. 5)…wait patiently (v.7)… a little while, and the wicked will be no more (v. 10)…the meek shall inherit the land [now we know where Jesus got it] (v. 11)…the Lord upholds the righteous (v. 17)…But the wicked perish (v. 20)…Depart from evil, and do good; so you shall abide forever.

For the Lord loves justice; the Lord will not forsake her faithful ones (v. 27-28).

          Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann classifies this as one of the “psalms of orientation” because it names how it is supposed to be.  This is how the cosmos should be oriented.  The wicked should be held accountable and the good should be rewarded.  In a world marked and marred by injustice, justice should prevail.  It all begs one simple question, “Is it so?”  Is it true that there is a moral universe, and does it bend anywhere in the direction of justice?

          I confess that I am not necessarily an optimist.  I use the language of confession intentionally because it feels as though optimism is something we should have, particularly in the religious world.  In New York Times columnist David Brooks’ book The Road to Character, he says one of the shared characteristics of moral heroes is “insane optimism.”[2]  Maybe I don’t have the stuff of moral heroism in me because it’s hard for me to fully embrace optimism when I see suffering all around.  Late one night I was watching televangelism—yes, I do that for fun—and the preacher told this story of visiting the Sudan during a famine.  He gave the backstory to what would become a Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph.  It is of a small child who appears to be scooting on the ground, clearly suffering from hunger and malnourishment.  That’s not the haunting part for, sadly, we’ve become used to those kinds of pictures.  The haunting part was what stood behind him and several feet back.  Standing, waiting, was a vulture.  It was waiting for the transformation from child to carrion.  How does one claim optimism in a world where that image occurs?  What about those whose lives are far more privileged, and yet are also are trapped in their own circumstances and feel desperate?  What about the state of the world, or to put it more directly, the state of the earth? 

There is, of course, a difference between optimism and hope.  Optimism is one’s assessment based on the evidence at hand.  Hope is the trust that things will work out based on conviction, faith if you will.  I have come to believe that faith is far more about the latter than the former.  That said, there are many smarter than I who would argue with evidence against my despair.  They tell me to step back and look at the bigger picture, which is just an aggregate of little pictures.  Harvard Psychologist Stephen Pinker argued extensively for optimism in his 2018 book Enlightenment Now:  The Case for Reason, Science, and Progress in which he claims a marked decrease in violence in the world.  Swedish physician and Professor of International Health Hans Rosling has attained popular acclaim with his Gapminder quiz with which he regularly exposes people’s overly negative view of the world. 

There are critiques of Pinker’s work and conclusions, and I have my own questions about Rosling’s methodology, but these works and others like them have given me reason to question whether things are as bad as I sometimes think they are.  In today’s world, we are bathed in bad news because it sells.  We access to it at our fingertips.  Leaders can play into our basest of fears in order to manipulate action and so bad news becomes a useful tool. 

Some of the great spiritual leaders have learned to see through this, claiming with conviction a better future is on the way.  The great paleontologist priest Jesuit Teilhard de Chardin wrote passionately about our ongoing evolution to a greater consciousness.  His works were buried until he was, but in 1965, ten years after his death he wrote this in Building the Earth:  “The more I look at the world as a scientist the less I see any other possible biological result apart from its active and conscious unity.  Life can progress on our planet in the future…by throwing down the barriers which still wall off human activity, and by giving itself up without hesitation to faith in the future.”[3]  That last caveat is critical, recognizing human activity as part of a larger unity.  Teilhard knew faith in our own boundaries, nationalism, could be our downfall, leading him to proclaim summarily, “The age of nations is past.”[4]

Even our opening quote seems to understand itself as an evidence-based assertion.  There is no claim to understand the entirety of the moral framework of the universe and yet still, “from what I see I am sure it bends toward justice.”  Now would be a good time to discuss who said this.  I purposely left the attribution off the bulletin cover.  My guess is many of you associate it with Martin Luther King, and you would be right as he often spoke of it.  He did not, however, originate it.  The quote is from a 19th century man named Theodore Parker, a Unitarian Universalist minister.  Parker is famous for two monumental phrases, and this is the lesser of the two.  The other of the universe was that democracy was “government of all the people, by all the people, for all the people.”  It is from there that Abraham Lincoln found phrasing for the Gettysburg Address.

  Parker was clearly brilliant.  Self-taught, by the age of 25 he could read twenty languages.  He was a renowned preacher.  Thousands came to hear him on Sundays.  You might think Parker was celebrated in his time, but quite the contrary.  He was vilified as a radical theologian, which is often the best kind if you ask me.  He readily spoke of God as Father and Mother (this is the 19th century), and he opposed slavery and the pro-slavery Mexican War.  He denied—and I trust this really got him in trouble—that the Bible carried “miraculous authority,” saying people would love the Bible more if they didn’t worship it.  I would add people would understand the sacred wisdom of the Bible more if they stopped worshiping it.  So ostracized was Parker by the church that he was forced to preach his own installation service.[5] 

It is all the more remarkable, then, considering all the opposition he faced, that Parker could say it was from what he saw that he was convinced the moral arc of the universe bent toward justice.  Could it be he saw things differently?  Could it be that it was not he was able to overlook suffering, but rather he learned to look through it to recognize something greater at work, not something that gave him the excuse to sit on the sidelines, but something greater that pulled him into participation?  Could it be that the moral arc appeared to bend toward justice because of the degree to which Parker’s own life leaned that way?

There is a next line in Parker’s quote that I omitted.  “Things refuse to be mismanaged long.”  It goes on, “Jefferson trembled when he thought of slavery and remembered that God is just.  Ere long all America will tremble.”  When I think of black history month and of the great spiritual anthem which will close today’s service, I am reminded of the importance of looking back from where we’ve come so that we can get a sense of where we’re going.  I’m left with the final question of whether we will stand quietly by, waiting for God to have the last word or will we, too, lift every voice and sing till earth and heaven ring, ring with the harmonies of liberty?  Amen.

[1] Theodore Parker,

[2] David Brooks, The Road to Character  (New York:  Random House, 2015).

[3] Teilhard de Chardin, Building the Earth (New York:  Avon Books, 1965), 68. 

[4] Ibid., 67.

[5] Background information on Parker from the Unitarian Universalist Church,